Letters to Nature

Nature 400, 652-655 (12 August 1999) | doi:10.1038/23231; Received 5 November 1998; Accepted 10 June 1999

Chronology, causes and progression of the Messinian salinity crisis

W. Krijgsman1, F. J. Hilgen2, I. Raffi3, F. J. Sierro4 & D. S. Wilson5

  1. Paleomagnetic Laboratory Fort Hoofddijk, Utrecht University, Budapestlaan 17, 3584 CD Utrecht, The Netherlands
  2. Department of Geology, Utrecht University, Budapestlaan 4, 3584 CD Utrecht, The Netherlands
  3. Dipartimento di Scienze della Terra, Università G. D'Annunzio, Campus Universitario, Via dei Vestini 31, 66013 Chieti Scalo, Italy
  4. Department de Geologia, Facultad de Ciencias, Universidad de Salamanca, 37008 93106, Salamanca, Spain
  5. Department of Geological Sciences, University of California, Santa Barbara, California 93106, USA

Correspondence to: W. Krijgsman1 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to W.K. (e-mail: Email: krijgsma@geo.uu.nl).

The Messinian salinity crisis is widely regarded as one of the most dramatic episodes of oceanic change of the past 20 or so million years (refs 1–3). Earliest explanations were that extremely thick evaporites were deposited in a deep and desiccated Mediterranean basin that had been repeatedly isolated from the Atlantic Ocean1,2, but elucidation of the causes of the isolation — whether driven largely by glacio-eustatic or tectonic processes — have been hampered by the absence of an accurate time frame. Here we present an astronomically calibrated chronology for the Mediterranean Messinian age based on an integrated high-resolution stratigraphy and 'tuning' of sedimentary cycle patterns to variations in the Earth's orbital parameters. We show that the onset of the Messinian salinity crisis is synchronous over the entire Mediterranean basin, dated at 5.96 plusminus 0.02 million years ago. Isolation from the Atlantic Ocean was established between 5.59 and 5.33 million years ago, causing a large fall in Mediterranean water level followed by erosion (5.59–5.50 million years ago) and deposition (5.50–5.33 million years ago) of non-marine sediments in a large 'Lago Mare' (Lake Sea) basin. Cyclic evaporite deposition is almost entirely related to circum-Mediterranean climate changes driven by changes in the Earth's precession, and not to obliquity-induced glacio-eustatic sea-level changes. We argue in favour of a dominantly tectonic origin for the Messinian salinity crisis, although its exact timing may well have been controlled by the approx400-kyr component of the Earth's eccentricity cycle.